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Early Signs of Breast Cancer

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July 09, 2020

Pinpointing breast cancer in its earliest stages isn’t easy because breast cancer signs and symptoms are different for everyone. Sometimes there is a palpable lump or tenderness. Very often, there is neither. Generally, breast cancer shows no symptoms in the early stage.

However, there are certain changes in the breast that may indicate breast cancer in both men and women. (Yes, though it’s rare, men can develop breast cancer, too. Male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S.)

Whether you are a man or a woman, it’s important to become familiar with your breasts so you can recognize when changes occur and seek timely treatment. Know the facts and understand your risk factors for the disease, such as genetics and family history, by reviewing these frequently asked questions.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that develops from the uncontrolled growth of abnormal breast cells. The rapidly dividing and irregular cells accumulate over time forming a mass or lump. Malignant tumors can spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.

How does breast cancer start?

Breast cancer occurs when cells in the breast grow out of control. Different kinds of breast cells develop into different types of breast cancer. Most breast cancers begin in the breast ducts (tubes that carry milk to the nipple) or lobules (glands that produce milk). These are known respectively as invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma. Other less common types of breast cancer include inflammatory breast cancer and ductal carcinoma in situ.

Though breast cancer is most common in women, men can develop it as well. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 883. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 2,620 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

What are the common signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

The following early signs and symptoms of breast cancer can happen with other conditions that are not cancer related.

  • New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area of the breast
  • Pulling in of the nipple or pain in the nipple area
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
  • Any change in the size or the shape of the breast
  • Pain in any area of the breast

Who is at high risk?

Your risk for breast cancer increases if your mother, sister or daughter (first-degree relative) has had breast cancer, especially if this family member was premenopausal at the time of their cancer diagnosis. Additionally, if family members on either your mother's or father's side of the family have had the disease, you are at higher risk. Having a first-degree male relative with breast cancer also raises your risk. If you have inherited changes (mutations) to certain genes, such asBRCA1andBRCA2, your risk is also increased. Men and women who have inherited these genetic mutations are at higher risk of breast, prostate and other cancers. Approximately, 5%-10% of breast cancers are due to a genetic abnormality inherited from your mother or father. Most breast cancers occur in someone who is not a genetic carrier and does not have a strong family history of breast cancer.

How can you detect breast cancer early?

The most important screening test to detect breast cancer early is the mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can detect breast cancer long before a tumor might be felt by you or your provider. We follow guidelines set by the American College of Radiology and the American Society of Breast Surgeons and recommend that average-risk women age 40 and older receive annual mammograms. Women at higher risk should be screened earlier.

Your risk for breast cancer can change over time, depending on a number of factors. In addition to being female, other risks include:

  • Aging
  • Inherited genetic mutations, such asBRCA1andBRCA2
  • Family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer
  • Starting your menstrual cycle before age 12
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Having dense breasts

Lifestyle factors can also increase your chances of developing breast cancer. These include:

  • Never having children
  • Giving birth for the first time after age 35
  • Using oral contraceptives
  • Consuming alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Inactivity
  • Smoking

Is breast cancer more common in the left or right breast?

Breast cancer occurs more frequently in the left breast than the right. The left breast is 5%-10% more likely to develop cancer than the right breast. No one knows why.

What can be mistaken for breast cancer?

Noncancerous breast conditions are common, according to the American Cancer Society. The ACS lists the most common benign breast conditions as:

  • Cysts
  • Fibroadenomas
  • Adenosis
  • Ductal or lobular hyperplasia
  • Papillomas
  • Fat necrosis
  • Mastitis

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. It is used to screen for breast cancer. The digital mammograms we obtain provide a 3D image of your breast to show any masses or abnormalities such as calcifications. Mammograms are the best test available to find breast cancer early, sometimes years before a breast cancer lump can be felt. Early detection of breast cancer with mammography means that treatment can begin earlier, most often before the disease has spread. Studies show that screening mammography significantly reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74.

Having a yearly screening mammogram is important because breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women after skin cancer. In 2020, it’s estimated that about 30% of newly diagnosed cancers in women will be breast cancers.

  • 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.
  • In 2020, an estimated 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 48,530 new cases of noninvasive (in situ) breast cancer.
  • About 2,620 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2020.

Why choose The University of Kansas Cancer Center for breast cancer diagnosis and treatment?

Our nationally and internationally recognized breast cancer specialists will ensure you receive the highest quality breast cancer care. You'll receive personalized treatment options, including the latest breast medical oncology, breast surgical options, breast reconstruction, breast radiation therapyand leading-edge clinical trialsnot available elsewhere.

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in the region, we treat all forms of breast cancer. This includes triple-negative, metastatic breast cancer, breast cancer during pregnancy and we offer breast cancer genetic testing and prevention. We also treat breast cancer in men. Our breast cancer specialists work closely as a team to provide you with the latest advances in prevention, diagnosis, treatment, clinical trials and survivorship services.


Start your path today.

Your journey to health starts here. Call 913-588-1227 or request an appointment at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

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